Copyright registration can be complicated and confusing. We can easily see how individual works, such as a book or a play, can be copyrighted. They have an author, a tangible expression, and can be reproduced. According to section 102 of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, many different types of work fall into the copyrightable category.

But what about a compilation of material that might not otherwise be copyrightable or a collection of material that is already copyrighted?

What is a collective work?

A collective work is a group of independent works that are gathered into a whole. Examples of collective works could include an encyclopedia or a magazine. Each article in a magazine can have its own copyright, and the magazine itself, as a whole, can be copyrighted as well. Other examples include an anthology of poems or an album with songs by various artists that were initially published as a part of other albums.

A song in which multiple writers collaborated, or a book written by multiple authors, does not qualify as a collective work. A collective work must contain other individual works.

What is a compilation?

A compilation is a group of materials “selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that that the resulting work as a whole constitutes a new work (U.S. Copyright Office Circular 14).” You can register a compilation for copyright as long as there is an author who exhibited creativity in creating the compilation.

The individual items included in the compilation could have their own copyright, separate from the compilation’s copyright. The copyright for the compilation would only copyright the author’s work, not the individual contributions to the compilation. Copyrighting a compilation does not give the author the rights to the individual works if other people hold their copyrights. It also does not cause a work in the public domain to become copyrighted again.

A compilation could also be made of public information rearranged to form new material, such as statistics used to create a chart or graph. A compilation could be as simple as a list of the best places to visit in a specific city, or even be a gathering of natural items permanently affixed to create an entirely new work.

What about the individual works?

Registering a copyright for a collective or a compilation does not copyright the individual works themselves. According to 17 U.S.C. section 201(c), “[c]opyright in each separate contribution to a collective work is distinct from copyright in the collective work as a whole.”

Compilations and collections must fall into one of these categories to qualify as copyrightable material according to The Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices section 307:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works
  • Dramatic works
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Not only that, compilations and collections must respect the copyright of the individual works that are already copyrighted.

Are you thinking about creating a collection or compilation in the new year? You want to avoid copyright infringement at all costs. A FREE consultation with me is the best way to make sure you stay on the right side of the law.  

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Francine D. Ward
Attorney-At-Law, Author, Speaker

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